This article was originally published in Progressive Cattleman
I would like to tell the story of a real-life Christmas miracle. With the hustle and bustle of the world around us, we often forget that the Christmas season is a very special time, and miracles do happen.
This story begins in the high desert country of southeastern Utah near the community of Blanding. Christmas day dawned bright and cold. It was a morning when frost hung in the air and ice crystals dangled from every plant like tiny ornaments.
Two brothers, B.J. and Preston Grover, left their wives and children, still caught up in the excitement of Christmas morning, and drove out to do their daily chores.
Part of the workload included feeding some cattle running on a pasture that was mostly sagebrush and pinyon trees. The little herd consisted of mostly replacement heifers and next year’s 4-H calves.
As the pickup wound its way down the dirt road and came to the spot where the cattle met them every day, the feed ground was empty. Not a bovine in sight. The brothers were bewildered as to why the cattle, who showed up every day like clockwork, were missing.
Not knowing what could be wrong, the two men decided to walk down a small ravine that wound its way downhill from the feeding area and drained into a pond. The lower end of the gully was still filled with water – and had frozen over.
Rounding a turn, the two men came upon a sight that was the beginning of a colossal nightmare. Two head of cattle had broken through the ice covering the drainage and were bobbing up and down in the water.
The animals paddled with all their might to keep their heads above the surface, but it was evident they were tiring. It was a matter of minutes, maybe less, before the two animals succumbed to the icy water.
Staging the first rescues
Sprinting back to the truck, one of the brothers grabbed a lariat while the other brother tried in vain to help the cattle. Returning with the rope, the two cowboys came up with a plan that seemed impossible, but it was their only hope.
Standing on the bank, the men were able to rope the animals, one at a time, and pull them close enough to the shore so they could get a foothold on dry land. With the two men pulling on the rope, the drowning critters were able to scramble up the bank.
The first one pulled to safety was a heifer. She climbed on to the embankment and stood there soaking wet, head down, barely able to move. The second drowning critter, one of the family’s 4-H steers, was a different story.
As he was pulled to the bank, he paid his rescuers back by coming out of the water like a Spanish fighting bull charging a matador. He chased one of his liberators up the hill and behind a tree. Both men struggled to get the rope off him and were finally successful. Eventually the two wet, freezing animals wobbled off into the trees.
Moving farther down the drainage, the men were shocked to find six more head in the same predicament. Despair gripped both brothers. This was too much, and they were too tired. There was nothing they could do.
As they looked at the animals fighting for life, the sound of a tractor came to them through the frozen air. Their uncle, Boyd Laws, was grading a road just over the hill. They ran down to the road and told him of their dire circumstances. He was able to navigate the tractor up through the brush and trees to a spot where he could help rescue the drowning animals.
This time, the rescued cattle did not move off into the trees. They collapsed on the bank, lying there soaked to the bone and freezing in the harsh winter air.
More hands, more help
As the three men looked at the dying animals, wondering if anything could be done, they heard someone down below shouting for help. They left the six immobile heifers and headed down – to find 16 more head of cattle broken through the ice covering the pond. The sight of so many animals bobbing up and down like apples on Halloween, fighting for their lives, was surreal to the onlookers.
This was definitely too much. There was no way to save such a large number of cattle. Fellow Blanding rancher Shawn Ivins had earlier heeded the call for help and had arrived to find the floundering animals.
It was quickly decided they could maybe save a few. The men started to do a mental triage to decide which of the creatures would be the lucky ones. By this time, a third brother, Eric Grover, had arrived with another tractor that made the effort of pulling the water-logged bodies from the pond much easier.
The process of roping an individual animal and pulling it to the shore began again. The cattle still in the water would swim toward the rescuers on the bank, their eyes wide with panic, begging to be saved. The hearts of the men were torn in two as they looked into the pleading faces of the drowning cattle. It was more than they could bear.
Each man prayed that something would happen. Somehow, a miracle would save these animals they loved and cared for. Their heritage as ranchers was generations long.
A ride to the barn
The men kept swinging a loop, and the rescuers kept pulling the animals to the bank. As the process continued, the number of cattle in the pond began to diminish, and those still swimming were very much alive. A flicker of hope pushed the rescuers on. Finally, the last heifers were pulled to the bank and out of the freezing water.
But now what? Not one of the animals had moved. They lay in heaps around the edge of the pond. It was like a scene from a 19th century buffalo hunt with carcasses littering the landscape.
The weather was so cold, and the cattle were soaked with ice forming on the tips of their hair. Again, the situation seemed hopeless.
Someone came up with the idea of loading the animals, one at a time, into the stock trailer using the front-end loader on the tractor. The rescue crew, who were now also soaked from ear to ear, began the progression of securing the cattle with ropes and chains, and carefully lifting them into the trailer.
In their current ambulatory condition, it was only possible to load six head at a time for transport.
But once the cattle were loaded, then what? There’s no animal hospital or even a veterinarian in this part of Utah to call on for help. As fate would have it, Blanding rancher Justin Ivins had just built a new barn for calving heifers.
It was a top-of-the-line structure complete with a section that was enclosed and could be heated. Each trailer-load of soaking wet, freezing bovines was immediately hauled to the barn and unloaded.
By now, all of the Grover and Ivins nephews and nieces had been called to duty at the calving barn. As each near-death animal was unloaded from the trailer, it was besieged by young people of all ages. They wielded towels, rags and anything else that could be used to dry the freezing cattle. Dozens of hands massaged life back into creatures that an hour before were given up for dead.
Hanging on with hope
Friends and family worked tirelessly throughout the day. As the animals began to show faint signs of life, a glimmer of hope took hold. However, the question still remained, “How could cattle suffer so much yet still hang on?” But hang on they did.
It was several days before this real-life Christmas miracle was confirmed. Only one out of the 20-some head who went into the water did not survive. The rest went on to recuperate.
The 4-H steers made the county fair in the fall, and the replacement heifers achieved the size they needed to breed – a true Christmas miracle.
A sidelight of this Christmas miracle was the bonding of the ranching families and people from the community who came to help. One thing about a small, isolated community, when catastrophes happen, everyone comes running.
When the participants of that extraordinary day try to tell the story, their emotions run close to the surface. But then everyone brightens, and they all talk at once, telling something special about that day.
In a world dominated by technology and information, there are still powers in the universe which cannot be explained. Things happen that science just can’t understand. As we all know, a higher power looks down and protects one of this world’s greatest phenomenons – the rancher.